By AINSLEY PLATT, Alabama Daily News
Newly elected Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, became the first Democrat to flip a State House seat since 2010 after defeating incumbent Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, earlier this month.
Now the only Jewish member of the chamber, Ensler represents House District 74, which became more blue after redistricting in 2021. He’s the first Democrat to hold the seat since the early 1980s. Prior to his election, Ensler worked in the office of Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed and later became the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama.
A self-described “proud Democrat,” Ensler campaigned on a platform of criminal justice reform while using his experience as a public school teacher to advocate for education policy changes.
District 74 covers the eastern portion of Montgomery. Redrawn to be much more inviting to Democratic candidates in last year’s round of redistricting, the district now reaches further south than it did pre-2021.
Ensler began his political work during his undergraduate studies at George Washington University, when he also interned in the Obama administration.
“We have observed Phillip’s work in the community for years,” Montgomery County Democratic Party Chair Tyna Davis said. “He is purely a public servant. He gives up his time, his money, his resources, his knowledge and has exhibited extreme compassion. He is the type of public servant that everyone should have.”
Eight Questions with Rep. Phillip Ensler
This is your first elected office – what led you to the decision to run?
“Yes, it is. First time I’ve been elected; I did run for the school board in Montgomery a little over four years ago. So overall, I have that passion for public service, and especially for trying to make a difference in the public realm. But especially now, with the district having been redrawn, a lot of my former students, from when I taught high school here, live in parts of the district and just having been involved, knowing that there were a lot of challenges, but also a lot of really great things happening. I wanted to make sure that there was someone in the seat focusing on solutions and that was really in touch with the community and going to try to bring all of that together to try to move some of the things forward.”
District 74 was redrawn last year — it became more Democratic leaning against the incumbent’s wishes. How big of a factor was the change in the district in your decision to run?
“It was a big decision. I am a proud Democrat, and there are ideas from both parties, on both sides, that are great. And there are things that I agree with Democrats on that Republicans don’t agree on and disagree with them both on but ultimately, I am a proud Democrat. So seeing the district lines change, you know, I knew that there was a chance that we could win if we ran a really solution oriented, grassroots campaign — which we did. And it worked out well.”
What committees are you hoping to serve on in the house?
“I’m passionate about a lot of things. Education is one, public safety, civil rights. What I have let our leadership know is that wherever they think I can most be helpful and effective, I’m happy to, you know, as the freshman, be assigned to where I can be … (a) team player.”
What are some issues or bills that you’re eager to support in the House?
“I’ve been involved and have a passion for education, public health, criminal justice, social justice, economic development. So you know, it truly is just wherever I end up, there’s so much that will be impactful. I think, on the public safety front though, something that we have seen in other places that doesn’t completely end gun violence, but having what’s called either violence interruption or violence prevention efforts, where — it does take some funding — but you have trained professionals, community members, that are kind of eyes and ears on the ground that are able to help de-escalate or prevent situations before they become violent. And that is a collaboration between public safety, churches, community members, but there’s certainly again, a role to play where maybe it even as a pilot program, you know, where certain community groups can apply for that. You know, so that’s certainly one on the public safety front. I think we can also though, get more – there are some incentives for police officers, you know, to live in certain neighborhoods, and I know that’s a little bit more of a by-department type decision and if they offer, you know, a vehicle if you live within the city limits, you can keep the police vehicle and drive it home if you live within the city limits of that department. … I mean, we can get creative about it, but ways to help local police departments with recruitment and retention of officers.
On the civil legal aid side, there are a lot of people facing eviction and domestic violence situations, can’t afford an attorney or they have a debt with a payday lender, and they’re brought to court. So even thinking about, you know, I think Alabama’s one of two states that doesn’t fund legal aid for those who can’t afford an attorney.
And then on the public health side, I would say making sure that we are preparing for future pandemics or situations and if that is even having an even more coordinated plan, and making sure that the public health officials and doctors are able to utilize their expertise.
…There are some colleagues of mine on the other side who want to, they want to be the ones to decide, you know, what happens in a public health emergency, and that’s me just doesn’t make sense. …There’s a reason there’s a public health officer. But even on the public health front, you know, other states have done something called community health workers, where there are boots on the ground, you know, grassroots style of having almost, you know, nurses, or individuals that go and educate the community on health issues, health practices…”
What do you see as the biggest issues that are in your district?
“Having a good constituent services program (is important). So a lot of residents have great ideas … they want to start a community garden, or they want to have after school programming at their church, and just being able to help connect them more to, if there are grants out there, if there are other individuals in the district that are doing that, and they don’t know about them. So even just focusing on some of those day-to-day, quality of life issues. And, you know, maybe a resident doesn’t have a sidewalk in their neighborhood, and they are interested in that. Now, that’s not a state issue, but they don’t necessarily know that or care that they want to know, as their representative, that I’m going to try to get them (that information). So I’m gonna put that all under the umbrella of, you know, constituent services, having transparent government, letting them know, you know, ‘Hey, these are different resources you can tap into.’”
You’ve spoken out against recent antisemitic acts in Alabama, what do you think it means for Jewish communities across the state to see someone of their faith in the state house?
“It’s a big honor and privilege to be the only Jewish member and I hope there certainly are more in the coming years. But I think for any minority group, whether that’s racial, ethnic, whether it’s women, I mean, to be able to see someone that either looks like them or has the same background or identity, that is always meaningful, not just in a symbolic way, but actually from a representation standpoint, that there’s someone there, who understands and is going to, you know, fight for equal access for all people. … Our Jewish background motivates us to provide for and advocate for a more inclusive, equal equitable justice community for people of all backgrounds. So I think even more than just being a Jewish member, and how Jewish people feel about that, that they know that I’m also going to be an advocate and voice for any groups that are underrepresented or a minority group.”
You were the only Democrat to beat a Republican incumbent in the state this year. What do you think needs to be done within the Alabama Democratic Party to help more candidates be successful?
“I mean, I think a few things that in general, I think, for anyone wanting to run that, you know, being involved in the community in the district, being visible, not just when it’s time to run — and I’m not saying that as like a criticism or kind of a veiled criticism of any particular candidates that ran and didn’t win. But I think in general, my advice would be that being really hands on and involved consistently is something really important. I do think having more individuals that are trained in grassroots organizing, and how to utilize voter data, and really working with college students, all throughout the state to let them know that they’re really great careers, and you can, it is a vital part of a campaign to have a someone that can do the communications and someone that can do the field organizing. And I think the more we build, you know, that type of professional campaign staff, you know, for races all throughout the state, that can make a really big difference. And, you know, I’m grateful that I had some younger people and individuals in Montgomery, who, you know, were quick to learn that and really play a big part of the campaign.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
“I know what people are tired of and frustrated (by) politicians or people that run on promises, all sorts of things. And I’m, I’m both someone that’s very hopeful and optimistic, and there is a lot that we can do to progress and move forward. But (I can) also be realistic, I’m not going to promise, you know, the moon and stars and, saying that I can magically fix or end crime or education. … But I will always do my best to keep them informed and empowered. And that way that they know, you know what’s happening and why. And you know, together, we can try to at least make things a little bit better.”